Getting Kids to Move with Alternative Sports

What are alternative sports and how can they benefit teens?

*Note* The five alternative sports highlighted in this brochure are only some of the opportunities that exist. If these are not the best fit for you or your teen, continue to explore and try new things!


This brochure was prepared with the help of Andie Stallman, a graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development who concentrated on Clinical and Developmental Health and Psychology. A former collegiate athlete on the Tufts University Field Hockey team, Andie is passionate about finding ways to make sports and exercise more accessible, so that everyone can enjoy the numerous benefits of physical activity. Andie is particularly interested in developmental psychopathology, sibling relationships, and experiences of trauma. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to help children and families develop skills that will enable them to confidently navigate life’s hardships and achieve their individual goals.

Getting Kids to Move: How Non-Traditional Sports Can Benefit Children with Social-Emotional and Learning Challenges

“I’ve tried to get my child to play soccer like I did when I was a kid, but she always stands at the end of the bench and doesn’t talk to anyone. Where can I find a sport where she’ll feel comfortable?

“After my kid comes home from school, he is exhausted and drained. All he wants to do is play video games. How can I get him moving?”

Research has repeatedly proven the benefits of sports and exercise for the well-being of adolescents. Teens who exercise demonstrate greater resilience and emotional regulation, better social communication, moral decision making, and time management, and report having a more positive body image. However, children with mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression, and children with neurodevelopmental challenges, such as ADHD or autism, may not feel comfortable participating in traditional sports. Fortunately, nontraditional sports, such as LARPing, Tai Chi, or rock-climbing, are amazing alternatives that can increase interest and comfort for kids who struggle to get involved in more mainstream modes of exercise. Through participation in non-traditional sports, these children can find an activity that aligns with their interests, get active, and improve their physical and mental health (Cohen & Peachey, 2015). 

There are numerous options for a child who is reluctant to join a traditional team sport. The following are only some of the options.

Fantasy Play: LARPing and Quidditch

LARPing, which stands for Live Action Role Playing, is a life-sized adaptation of the game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). During this activity, participants take on the persona, skills, and plot lines of characters in D&D through physical tasks, obstacles, and other activities that the leader of the game puts together (Esslinger, 2015). Navigating the social, physical, cognitive, and emotional demands of LARPing in a safe and engaging environment helps participants develop coping skills that they can then apply in their everyday lives. For example, memorizing and applying character traits during the game improves memory and attention. The immersive nature of LARPing pushes players to safely confront emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear with support from other players and with the ability to come out of the game if necessary. This process can increase stress tolerance and improve emotional regulation skills. Finally, working with others to create a story and complete physical tasks improves fitness and encourages social bonds which create opportunities to practice social skills. Research shows that the benefits and lessons that come from working through these challenges can last a lifetime (Korhonen, 2020).

Quidditch, also known as “muggle quidditch” or “quadball”, is a fictional sport from the Harry Potter universe that has been adapted for real-life play. During Quidditch, players run, jump, throw, and catch all while astride a stick as if riding a broom (here is a video of the Tufts University Tufflepuffs in the US Quidditch cup). When interviewed, Quidditch players reported team pride, a sense of security, support, and inclusion from teammates with a common interest. Players reported that the “quirkiness” of Quidditch and others’ willingness to engage in its “whimsy nature” made them feel more comfortable releasing their inhibitions, which increased their overall self-confidence and self-acceptance. Research has found that participation in Quidditch provides benefits similar to those of traditional sports, including stronger leadership skills, increased social opportunities, and improved self-confidence, as well as an additional level of comfort and support due to the nature of the community of Quidditch players (Cohen & Peachey, 2015).

For children who enjoy role playing, fictional games, or all things Harry Potter, fantasy-based sports can be a great way to get involved in physical activity.

Individual or Group: Tai Chi and Martial Arts

While LARPing and Quidditch are relatively new additions in the world of nontraditional exercise, martial arts and Tai Chi have a long history. Years of research prove the benefits of these alternatives to sports, such as increasing resilience, self-esteem, confidence, and overall mental health (Moore et al., 2021). Martial arts (karate, tae-kwon-do, judo, etc.) are uniquely positioned as a highly discipline-focused sport that measures success based on individual progress. Research has shown that celebrating personal improvement can increase children’s engagement with sports and help them stick with it longer (Drane & Barber, 2016). Therefore, martial arts can appeal to children who do not feel comfortable with the competitive nature of many traditional sports. 

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese exercise that focuses on mind-body connection and mindfulness. It is a non-competitive sport that can be done individually or in a group setting (Bao & Jin, 2015). Research shows that Tai Chi benefits physical health and well as psychological well-being. It decreases stress, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increases self-efficacy and self-esteem. While many martial arts require sparring partners, Tai Chi can more easily be done alone or independently within a bigger group. This activity can be a good option for kids who want to try martial arts in a less socially demanding environment.

Getting Outdoors: Adventure Based Programs and Horse-Back Riding

For a child who enjoys nature and being outdoors, adventure programs may be a great option. They are group-based programs that allow kids to work together to learn survival skills, work on their physical fitness, and solve problems all while getting fresh air. These programs have been found to promote resilience, psychological well-being, and teach coping strategies to help teens navigate times of stress (Mutz & Müller, 2016). The activities offered within these programs have benefits of their own, making this a highly positive and customizable option. For example, rock climbing, which is often a part of adventure programs, has been found to help teens develop problem-solving skills and to improve their feelings of self-esteem and competence (Lynnes & Temple, 2008).

Horseback riding is another outdoor physical activity that has successfully been used as a therapeutic intervention, a team and individual extracurricular, and both a competitive sport and a non-competitive hobby. This activity is widely adaptable to an individual’s needs and physical or social abilities. In fact, horse-back riding has been found to be beneficial to children with a wide range of physical, cognitive and social-emotional challenges, including autism, ADHD, depression, and PTSD. Studies have shown that horseback riding relieves stress and gives riders a sense of accomplishment (Malchrowicz-Mośko et al., 2020). Additionally, studies show that adolescents experience greater self-esteem, improved communication and engagement in therapeutic settings, and report fewer symptoms of mental health disorders such as ADHD and depression (Smith-Osborne & Selby, 2010). Horseback riding has successfully been used for years to help children feel better and get active and is a fantastic alternative to traditional sports for children who love animals.


Teenagers with social-emotional or physical challenges are at a particular risk for leading a sedentary life-style and experiencing health problems as a result. It may be hard for these kids to feel successful in a mainstream sport, so they may be hesitant to get involved. Fortunately, there are many non-traditional sports and activities, such as LARPing, martial arts, or adventure programs, that provide the same benefits as traditional sports without some of the barriers to participation. Whether a child wants to play outside, engage their creative mind in the fantasy world, or exercise in a non-competitive setting, there is a space where they can thrive and learn skills that will help them successfully transition to adulthood.

Examples of Alternative Sport Programs in the Greater Boston Area

LARP Games: This is an afterschool program hosted by the ACERA school. In this program, children will participate in Live Action Role Play (LARPing) led by a teacher and surrounded by like-minded peers. Additionally, this program encourages the kids to learn the rules and create strategies which allows them to practice their analytical and critical thinking through physical play.

Arlington Recreation (Little Ninjas Karate): Little Ninjas Karate classes are in Arlington, MA and for kids ages 5-7 or 8-12. The class teaches proper stances, discipline, and self-defense, as well as lessons in fire safety, stranger danger, and the importance of nutrition.

Rock Spot Climbing: Rock Spot is a rock-climbing gym with multiple locations in RI, MA, and CT. They offer numerous youth programs to introduce children of all ages to rock climbing in a safe and fun way.

Windrush Farms Horseback Riding: Windrush Farms provides programming for children and adults who want to learn how to ride horses. They cater to people with and without special needs and provide a variety of learning opportunities that improve core strength, balance, and coordination.


Bao, X., & Jin, K. (2015). The beneficial effect of Tai Chi on self-concept in adolescents. International Journal of Psychology50(2), 101–105.

Cohen, A., & Peachey, J. W. (2015). Quidditch: Impacting and Benefiting Participants in a Non-Fictional Manner. Journal of Sport and Social Issues39(6), 521–544.

Drane, C. F., & Barber, B. L. (2016). Who gets more out of sport? The role of value and perceived ability in flow and identity-related experiences in adolescent sport. Applied Developmental Science20(4), 267–277.

Esslinger, K., Esslinger, T., & Bagshaw, J. (2015). Reaching the Overlooked Student in Physical Education: Column Editor: Anthony Parish. Strategies28(5), 40–42.

Korhonen, S., Nykänen, I., & Partanen, E. (2020). Larp-Related Stress. Ropecon Ry, University of Helsinki.

Lynnes, M. D., & Temple, V. A. (2008). Inclusive Artificial Wall Climbing. Physical and Health Education Journal.

Malchrowicz-Mośko, E., Wieliński, D., & Adamczewska, K. (2020). Perceived Benefits for Mental and Physical Health and Barriers to Horseback Riding Participation. The Analysis among Professional and Amateur Athletes. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(10), 3736.

Moore, B., Woodcock, S., & Dudley, D. (2021). Well‐being warriors: A randomized controlled trial examining the effects of martial arts training on secondary students’ resilience. British Journal of Educational Psychology91(4), 1369–1394.

Mutz, M., & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence49(1), 105–114.

Smith-Osborne, A., & Selby, A. (2010). Implications of the Literature on Equine-Assisted Activities for Use as a Complementary Intervention in Social Work Practice with Children and Adolescents. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal27(4), 291–307.


This blog post was prepared with the help of Andie Stallman, a graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development who is concentrating in Clinical and Developmental Health and Psychology. A former collegiate athlete on the Tufts University Field Hockey team, Andie is passionate about finding ways to make sports and exercise more accessible, so that everyone can enjoy the numerous benefits of physical activity. Andie is particularly interested in developmental psychopathology, sibling relationships, and experiences of trauma. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to help children and families develop skills that will enable them to confidently navigate life’s hardships and achieve their individual goals.

Barriers and Benefits: Helping Teens with Autism increase their Physical Activity

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by difficulty with reciprocal social interactions and by a pattern of restricted or repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities.

While adolescents in general are leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles, teens with ASD are at an even greater risk for decreased physical activity and weight gain. In fact, adolescents with ASD were found to be 62% less likely to engage in weekly physical exercise and 81% less likely to have participated in organized sports within the previous year, when compared to their peers without this diagnosis (McCoy & Morgan, 2020). Multiple barriers exist that make participation in sports a daunting task for adolescents with ASD. The social and physical demands of participating in an organized sport can often be intimidating for these youngsters.   Stepping outside of their comfort zone to try a new activity can also be a challenge. With thoughtful accommodations and creative solutions, however, these barriers can be overcome. Participation in sports will not only lead to a healthier lifestyle, but can also help teens with ASD improve their social skills and become more flexible in thinking and behavior.

Part #1: Overcoming Social Barriers

Children with ASD struggle with communication and social interactions, such as making friends, reading social cues, and understanding unspoken rules.  Some teens with ASD are reluctant to join an organized sport because the social demands of such participation may seem daunting. While the social demands are real, there are many ways to support teens and make their participation in sports less intimidating and exhausting. 

Kids with ASD can thrive in team sport environments when provided with extra support from intentional and well-trained coaches. One study found that with the support of their coach, six ice hockey players with ASD were able to increase their social interaction, engage with their teammates in team settings, and improve their social skills during practice (Amatriain‐Fernández et al., 2021). This shows that intervention and support during physical activity can make the experience more enjoyable and may reduce barriers, such as difficulty socializing. 

If team sports are not a good fit for a child, they can still experience the benefits of exercise through individual sports or training programs. One study found that an athletic-based therapy program that included both aerobic and weight training completed in a group setting, increased the kids’ physical fitness, exposure to social interactions, and overall well-being (Jimeno, 2019). In our practice, we have observed children and teens with ASD thrive in a variety of individual sports, such as swimming, tennis, boxing, or fencing.

Thus, while it can be an initial obstacle to involvement, the social aspects of sports do not need to deter youth with ASD from joining in. Participating in team sports with social support from a qualified adult, or getting involved in an individual sport, can be great options to help teens with ASD engage in physical activity and practice their social skills.

Part #2: Overcoming the Reluctance to Try New Things or to Step Outside their Comfort Zone

In addition to experiencing difficulty with social interactions, individuals with ASD are prone to engaging in restricted and repetitive behavior, interests, and activities, which makes it difficult to step outside of their comfort zone and try new things. One study found that teens with ASD felt more comfortable doing sedentary activities, such as playing video games and watching TV.  In addition, these kids often have motor and coordination challenges and may feel intimidated by the physical requirements of sports. For these reasons, they often avoid organized sports or exercise and struggle to start later in life (McCoy & Morgan, 2020). At the same time, researchers have found that adolescents with ASD have positive beliefs about physical activity, enjoy it when they participate in a positive setting, and would like to participate more than they currently do (Stanish et al., 2015). Thus, teens with ASD want to increase their physical activity, but need extra support to overcome the anxiety of stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Incorporating exercise into the daily schedule decreases the stress associated with participating in an unfamiliar activity. Therapeutic schools, such as the Higashi School in Randolph, MA, have proven the success of this approach. They found that 20 minutes of jogging in the mornings reduced challenging behaviors, helped with emotional regulation, and increased classroom engagement in children and teens with ASD (Woodman et al., n.d.). In addition, the school uses engaging and creative forms of exercise including pogo sticking, unicycling, jump roping, swimming, and jogging to increase accessibility (Home – Boston Higashi School, n.d.). Their great success proves that it is possible to make exercise comfortable and enjoyable for teens with ASD who prefer consistent and familiar routines.

Tips for Parents: Much like their children, parents of teens with ASD may feel overwhelmed by the seemingly daunting task of trying to get their child to increase physical activity.  Researchers found that support for parents is an important factor in helping teens with ASD increase participation in sports and exercise. (Sarol et al., 2022). 

Here are five tips for how parents can support their child through this process:

1- Compassion and positivity: Starting a new sport or exercise program can be scary for kids with ASD and the inevitable hard days can be a challenge for both parent and child. Parents can build up their child’s confidence during these times by telling them to focus on their individual progress and reflect on how their skills and fitness have improved rather than how it compares to the other kids. This is their journey. One hard day does not mean they can’t do it or aren’t progressing.

2- Celebrating Accomplishments: A major predictor of sport engagement comes from intrinsic motivation, or the child’s desire to participate for their own enjoyment. Parents can help by celebrating that a child participated in a competition or match with a treat like ice cream, regardless of the outcome. Celebrating effort instead of a result is a great way to make them feel good and keep them excited!

3- Create small goals: When expectations are set so high that a child is unable to meet them, they can experience hopelessness, self-blame, fatigue, and even guilt. Research shows that “feasible, flexible, and pleasurable programs” have the best chance for success. Parents can start by going on short walks with the child, finding a low-stakes intramural sports team in the town, or even asking the child to play with or walk the family pet. As the kids’ confidence grows, so can their goals!

4- Join in: Research shows that modeling is an important learning tool for children. In fact, one study found that more active mothers have children, especially daughters, who live less sedentary lifestyles. Parents can go on walks or hikes with their child, do child-focused yoga videos at home, or engage together in active chores, such as yard work. This a great practice for improving parents’ mental health as well!

5- Find support for yourself: Seeing a child struggling is stressful, and parents may just want to get to the “other side” of the barrier, where the benefits are. This is completely normal and other parents feel this too. Finding support through parent groups, mental health professionals, and friends can help parents navigate this journey. You are learning and deserve compassion as you find what works best for you and your child!

Conclusion: Children with ASD struggle with social interactions and trying new activities that lay outside of their comfort zone. Because of these difficulties, they are less likely to participate in organized sports or in an exercise program. Research shows that advance planning and creating additional support from parents, teachers, and coaches can help teens overcome the barriers to sports participation. In turn, regular participation in sports and physical activity can help increase peer interactions, encourage teens to try new things, and to help them become more flexible in their routines. Once the barriers are overcome, the numerous mental and physical health benefits of sports and exercise will open the door to a healthier lifestyle for teens with ASD.


Amatriain‐Fernández, S., Ezquerro García‐Noblejas, M., & Budde, H. (2021). Effects of chronic exercise on the inhibitory control of children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports31(6), 1196–1208.

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Arnell, S., Jerlinder, K., & Lundqvist, L.-O. (2020). Parents’ perceptions and concerns about physical activity participation among adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Autism24(8), 2243–2255.

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Jimeno, M. (2019). Improving the quality of life of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders through athletic-based therapy programs. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist36(2), 68–74.

McCoy, S. M., & Morgan, K. (2020). Obesity, physical activity, and sedentary behaviors in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder compared with typically developing peers. Autism24(2), 387–399.

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Sarol, H., Gürkan, R. K., & Gürbüz, B. (2022). The road to championship: An example of an individual with autism spectrum disorder. Baltic Journal of Health and Physical Activity14(3), Article2.

Stanish, H., Curtin, C., Must, A., Phillips, S., Maslin, M., & Bandini, L. (2015). Enjoyment, Barriers, and Beliefs About Physical Activity in Adolescents With and Without Autism Spectrum Disorder. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly,32(4), 302–317.

Woodman, A. C., Evans, M., Golden, R., Mori, Y., & Maina, J. (n.d.). The Impact of Vigorous Exercise on Behavior Problems and Academic Engagement among Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 1.


This blog post was prepared with the help of Andie Stallman, a graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development who is concentrating in Clinical and Developmental Health and Psychology. A former collegiate athlete on the Tufts University Field Hockey team, Andie is passionate about finding ways to make sports and exercise more accessible, so that everyone can enjoy the numerous benefits of physical activity. Andie is particularly interested in developmental psychopathology, sibling relationships, and experiences of trauma. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to help children and families develop skills that will enable them to confidently navigate life’s hardships and achieve their individual goals.